Monday, September 08, 2014

How to Read a Foreign Novel on a Kindle

The Challenge

If you speak a foreign language well enough to puzzle out newspaper articles, you have probably at one time or another attempted to read a novel.

And it kicked your butt.

If you got five pages into it, you did very well indeed. Even five paragraphs is more than I think most people could manage, unless they had a copy of the English translation at hand.

The reason for this is that a strong student finishes a two-year college language program knowing about 2,000 "word-families." (Run, runs, runner, running, runny, etc. are part of one word family.) But to read "authentic" novels (written by and for adult native speakers) one needs a knowledge of about 6,000. The "beginners paradox" states that you can only learn those extra 4,000 word families by reading, but you can't read until you know those 4,000 word families. You end up needing to check every fifth word in the dictionary, and that effort defeats you. One in fifty is thought to be the limit for pleasure reading. That is, you must know 98% of the words on the page without a dictionary--not counting words you can guess from context. (You can find a good summary of current thinking in Paul Nation's "How much input do you need to learn the most frequent 9,000 words?" [Reading in a Foreign Language, October 2014]).

I have spoken fluent (B-level) Spanish for forty years, but despite multiple attempts, I never got past the first page or two of a novel until September 2013 when I attempted a Spanish novel on a Kindle and was astonished to polish it off in four days. In the following twelve months, I have read six Spanish novels, two Italian novels, and I'm 50% of the way through the French novel Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon) by Jules Verne. In this post, I'm going to outline how to do it.

Choosing a Kindle

For my reading, I use a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader. This is the version that says "Amazon" (not "Kindle") on the back. I read my first Spanish novel on a Kindle Touch, and, of course it does work, but it's a bit more limited and it's not what I'll be describing here. Update October 22, 2014: I have tested it with the new Kindle Voyage, and it works exactly the same way the Paperwhite does.

A Kindle Fire will not work, nor will any of the Kindle apps for PCs, tablets, or phones. The reason is that, at this writing, none of those allows you to use a bilingual dictionary. As will be clear below, it's the bilingual dictionary that makes this work. Update October 22, 2014. Several people have reported that this does work with the iPad Kindle app. It still does not work with the PC app or the Windows Phone app.

To repeat, you must actually buy one of the dedicated e-reader devices--those black-and-white things that can only be used for reading books. None of the Kindle apps for more sophisticated devices will work for this purpose. (Update: one person claims the reader for the iPhone will now let you choose a bilingual dictionary. Someone else told me about a way to hack an Android device to change the dictionary, but I don't think most people want to hack [and possibly break] their devices.)

Choosing a Book

(Update: I have since written a much longer post on finding foreign novels to read. This section is still a good summary, though.)

Because reading in a foreign language is challenging--especially for the first novel you attempt in a language--it's important to pick something exciting. It will be very, very tempting to give up during that first chapter. For that reason, I like mysteries or thrillers. Literature, even if it's your goal, is not the place to start.

Second, I personally avoid novels for children; the grammar is no simpler, the vocabulary will be filled with words of limited use to adults (e.g. tug-of-war), and the dialogue is apt to contain slang expressions found only in the Urban Dictionary. On the other hand, the pictures probably do help.

Third, I avoid translations of English novels. This point is debatable, if your goal it to make it easier, since translators use a simpler vocabulary than native authors. (For example, words like azure, cobalt, or cerulean are apt to become just "blue" when translated.) However, as I mentioned above, I'm going for the "authentic" reading experience, so, for me, translations are out. As are books that were specifically written for foreigners studying the language. I only consider books written by and for native adult speakers of the language.

Fourth, I usually choose contemporary novels, since historical works often use obsolete words and even obsolete grammar. (It will be obvious that Cinq semaines en ballon breaks several of these rules. More on that in a later post.)

Amazon sells quite a few foreign-language books for the Kindle, and although archaic publishing laws mean that recent best sellers may not be available (another topic for a future post), there are still hundreds of thousands of books to choose from, many at prices under one dollar.

As soon as you buy any book in a foreign language, the Kindle will offer you the options to set up the device for reading it. Those options are not available before you do this. If you want to do the setup before settling on the book you really want to read, pick any of the many books available for free in that language. Once you've downloaded it, the Kindle will recognize you as a bilingual reader and you can finish setting up the device. (Update November 19, 2014: It is no longer necessary to do any special setup.)

Choosing a Dictionary

A bilingual dictionary is a dictionary with entries in one language and definitions in another one. As I mentioned above, a good bilingual dictionary is essential, I have had good success with the Collins products for Spanish, Italian, and French, which I'll describe in more detail in later posts. The most important thing is to remember that although a physical bilingual dictionary is really two books in one--Foreign-to-English and English-to-Foreign--the Kindle bilinguals are sold separately. Be sure you buy the Foreign-to-English dictionary (definitions in English), since you will be reading in a foreign language; you are not trying to write your own novel in a foreign language!

Note that the bilingual dictionary does not count as a foreign-language book. As we'll see later, the Kindle considers it a book in English, since that's what the definitions are written in.

As soon as you downloaded that first book in a foreign language, the Kindle should have made a huge monolingual dictionary available to you as well for free. For example, a French dictionary with definitions in French. You will actually make use of both dictionaries at one time or another. As you become a stronger reader, you will make more and more use of the monolingual dictionary, but in the beginning, you will only use it for words that are not found in the bilingual dictionary.

Setting up the Kindle

Update November 19, 2014: If you have the latest version of Kindle Voyage or Paperwhite, you should be able to skip this section entirely. If you have an older Kindle, you may still need to do this.

Begin at the Kindle home screen:

Click on the menu (the  button in the upper right) and choose "settings."

Second from the bottom, click "Device Options"

At the bottom of the screen, click "Language and Dictionaries"

You should see an entry for every language represented on your Kindle. Press on the entry for the language you're planning to start reading.

The Monolingual dictionary will probably be selected, but you don't want it to be the default. Instead, click on the bilingual dictionary you just bought. Don't forget to click "OK" or else it won't take effect.

Now you're ready to read your novel!

Reading on the Kindle

The basic idea behind reading on the Kindle is very simple. When you see a word you don't know, you press on it and the definition from the bilingual dictionary pops up. For example, here's a page from Cinq semaines en ballon:

Let's look at the first paragraph. "The night became very dark." No problem there, although literally it seems to say "The night made itself very dark." (I'll discuss how to learn more grammar in a later post.) First part of the second sentence is okay, up to the semicolon: "The doctor had not managed to check out the countryside:" but the second part of the sentence has an unknown word in it: "he had [verb] to a very tall tree, a confused mass in the darkness, which he barely identified."

So press on accroché and Kindle pops up the definition:

The second definition is clearly the one we want. The professor tied the ballon up to a tall tree.

Update November 19, 2014: If you tap on the name of the dictionary in the dialog box ("Collins French-English Dictionary and Grammar" in the example) Kindle gives you a list of dictionaries to choose from.)

Update December 15, 2014: Be sure the "Vocabulary Builder" option is turned off. There appears to be a bug in it which causes your Kindle to get slower and slower and eventually lock up, forcing you to reset it.

With this, you now know enough, in theory, to read a novel on the Kindle. I have a number of tips for how to make this work better and for how to learn more about the language in the process, and I'll discuss those in the next post. One should actually try reading at least a few paragraphs or chapters now. The suggestions for improving the process will much much more sense once you're done a little reading on your own.

You should definitely be able to read more than five paragraphs this time.


Russell said...

Coincidentally I just resolved to try reading a German novel.

I heartily second your recommendation to get a good dictionary. At first I picked up a free dictionary. It couldn't handle conjugated verbs etc so the frustration made it worse that useless. I picked up a good dictionary for about $10 (Pons) and it makes all the difference. As a bonus, at times its articles seem nearly as interesting as the novel!

Banjaxed said...

Hi, This sounds very interesting, however I have only just started learning Spanish and am very much a beginner. I worry that If I was to follow your advice I would be biting off more than I could chew. Would you advise to wait till I have some proficiency or just get a kindle and dive straight in? P.S. I'm here because of your post on Duolingo.

Greg Hullender said...

Reading a novel is something to attempt once you have been exposed to the entire basic grammar of the language. If you are on Duolingo, that would be after you have finished the Spanish tree and are comfortable doing translations in the Immersion section.

If you are just beginning Spanish, then you are probably a year or two away from this.

Banjaxed said...

Thanks for your advice Greg. I suspected this would be the case. I don't want to leave any stones unturned in searching for tools to help me learn. I have several that I use at the moment, Duolingo is just one of them. I will save the Spanish novel and kindle tool for much much later in my journey.
Thanks again.

Unknown said...

I have been learning Spanish for about six months and have a real problem with recognising conjugations. I got the Collins dictionary on the basis that it dealt with this area only to find out later that it was limited to key verbs.

How would you suggest I get my head round this matter and progress?

Jean said...

On the latest Paperwhite, Sept 2014, you don't need to set a default dictionary. It automatically matches the dictionary with the language you are reading.

Greg Hullender said...

@nek I assume you have already memorized the verb conjugations? That is, do you already know how to conjugate verbs in the seven simple tenses? If not, you need to do that first, and the Kindle won't help with that.

A problem I had, early on, was that although I knew how to conjugate verbs, when I was reading quickly I would ignore the endings and just guess. The context often makes it easy to guess, after all. Every now and then I'd grossly misinterpret something, and then I'd reread and spot the error. I worried about that a lot, but, somehow, after reading a few novels, it quit being a problem.

So if your problem is that you don't know the forms, then you need to study them on your own. If the problem is making yourself pay attention to them while you're reading, don't worry too much; it will come with time. Just keep on reading.

Patrick Halstead said...

Hi Greg,

Cool post. I read Japanese and use a Japanese-Japanese dictionary when I find a word I don't know. That often leads to a deeper sense spelunk than would a Japanese-English lookup since I'll often find a word in the Japanese definition to drill down on and that reinforces the meaning matrix in my head.

I use the Daijirin (大辞林) Japanese dictionary app for my iOS device. It also lets me draw the character which helps reinforce the writing as well. Unfortunately, doesn't look like there's an easy lookup option from Kindle app to that app, but that's ok since I only lookup one word every 4-5 pages.

Greg Hullender said...

Nice to hear from you, Patrick. I agree that one should strive to reach the point of using the monolingual dictionary rather than the bilingual one. However, for a beginner, that's impractical because it takes too long. (I've tried it.)

With time, though, I find that I use the monolingual more and the bilingual less, and Kindle could do things in the future to make this easier. I'll discuss it in more detail in a future post.

montmorency said...

Hello Greg,

Thanks for the article. As a matter of interest, what are the limitations you find with the Kindle touch (as compared to Paperwhite and Voyage)? I had got the impression that the main difference was the lack of a backlight, and maybe a slightly lesser screen quality.

On another tack, one of the problems for foreign language learners is the relative lack of Kindle-compatible translation-dictionaries. It's fine for Spanish, German and French and maybe Italian, but stray far from these, and you walk alone.

I'd really love to find a Welsh-English dictionary, for example.

Greg Hullender said...

Welsh is actually listed as one of Amazon's supported languages.

That means there ought to be a monolingual dictionary for it. Bilingual dictionaries will be more of a challenge, especially since to work on the Kindle, they need to index all the word forms. Amazon does give instructions on how to create such a thing yourself, but you'd need to be a programmer and a linguist, to some degree.

Steve said...

I've been doing this for a while, but I think you're mistaken about the kindle device. I've been using the Kindle app on an iPad with a bilingual dictionary and I've had no problems at all.

Greg Hullender said...

I said "Several people have reported that this does work with the iPad Kindle app." Did you read that as "does not?" :-)

Enough people have told me that that I do believe it. What I really need is for someone to send me a screen shot of it.

Laura Jo said...

Hi! Very interesting article. I also came here through Duolingo, when I got into a conversation about other resources, which led to talking about books.

Only problem is, I have a Kindle Fire and you say this can't be done on that. Do you happen to know if that's still true? Or how I can check before getting a novel and a dictionary and excited? :P

Greg Hullender said...

I looked on Amazon at the detail pages for a few dictionaries, and, unfortunately, it still looks as though the Kindle Fire doesn't support bilingual dictionaries.

Laura Jo said...

Aww, boo. I guess I'll have to do it the old fashioned way. Thank you for checking, and answering so quickly!

Unknown said...

Thanks Greg, for a nice write-up on an important topic. I discovered this method about 20 months ago. Can find only one point to disagree on: the choice of book. For me (and probably for many others) the objectives are to learn the language and secondary to have fun. With these preferences, I found it advantageous to start with specially written easy texts early rather than keep going only with Duolingo. I am not sure how far I had gotten in the Spanish tree when I started reading books, probably about half. So my recommendation is to start early and with easy books, and then advance gradually toward more authentic texts in parallel with completing the Duolingo tree. The joy of reading a real meaningful text is so much greater the earlier it is realized.

Greg Hullender said...

Half-way down the Duolingo tree, I don't think you have enough grammar to read even children's books, but newspaper articles ought to be within reach. I definitely recommend reading newspaper articles, starting about half-way down the tree, using something like to make it easy to look up mystery vocabulary and phrases. is another option for finding idiomatic phrases.

However, it's hard to fault success. If you found novels that worked for you even just half-way down the tree, more power to you. Feel free to share links to them here, if you want. If they worked for you, they'll likely work for other people too.

Unknown said...
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